Amongst all of the noise involving the anointing of Devin Booker as the next best thing, the drafting of a teenage frontcourt, a mini-me point guard with a loud game, and the trade rumors involving his backcourt running mate, Eric Bledsoe has been thrown off to the side this summer. When I attended the press conference announcing that the Sunswill be hosting two home games from Mexico City next season, I found it interesting that the "hype" video that is used to market the games showcased more Booker highlights alongside Kawhi Leonard and Dirk Nowitzki rather than our most recent face of the franchise.
Bledsoe was not exiled from the video entirely, but my own intuition told me that his status as the lead dog had been usurped right before my very eyes. Booker may be the apple of many Suns fans' eyes (especially after Summer League), but that doesn't mean that we should all disregard what we already have in Bledsoe. Dude is an ox on the court, and a pleasantly humble individual off of it. Knee injuries be dammed -- this upcoming season has all of the makings to be his best one yet.
Prior to tearing his meniscus on December 26, Bledsoe was averaging 20.4 points, 6.1 assists, and 4 rebounds per game. The numbers are great, like nearly All-Star level great, but there was an aura of control that Bledsoe was letting off while watching him last season that was a delight to take in. His game is all about tempo and toggling between his underrated top-flight speed in the open court and knack for changing directions with intentions to bulldoze fools in the lane.
Poor Noah Vonleh didn't know what hit him on that possession, and Mason Plumlee didn't help matters by frantically trying to withhold an Alex Len mid-range jumper for reasons that remain unclear. Bledsoe's explosive bursts of athleticism unlock all sorts of goodies when big men get switched onto him along the perimeter, and he showed more self awareness last season of when to go get his shot or leverage the mismatch into an open look elsewhere.
Nit-pickers would like to see Bledsoe uncork his speed on fastbreaks more often where he can put pressure on a defense before they are set and create an easy basket out of thin air:
Oklahoma City has five defenders inside of the 3-point line before Bledsoe releases the pass -- a one-man advantage in comparison to the Suns' four offensive players. But it doesn't mater; Bledsoe commands the attention of both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant while opening up the backdoor for T.J. Warren, an always lurking cutter when open space is afoot. Executing jump passes isn't the best habit to have, but Bledsoe uses his eyes to coax Durant out of place like a quarterback playing a single-high safety, and leads Warren perfectly with a bounce pass.
My favorite thing about this play is the fact that Warren had not even began to make his slice to the rim as Bledsoe threaded the pass between a bewildered Westbrook and Durant. Look at where Warren is a split second after Bledsoe pounds the rock into the hardwood:
Insane -- much like the ease in which Bledsoe executes this whole sequence. Watch the play again: Bledsoe is surging at a steady pace towards two athletic marvels, he shrewdly changes direction so that the ball is in his left hand, brings the ball up to make Durant think that he is kicking the ball to the corner, then -- in mid-air mind you -- he pierces the lane with the instinctual belief that Warren is going to cut. This is why I love the NBA; I cannot fathom processing the little nuances that went into that singular play in a matter of seconds.
Although playing in transition tends to be a viable source for easy buckets, Bledsoe is prone to making a killing utilizing the pick-and-roll within a halfcourt setting. Becoming a pick-and-roll maestro is the truest test as to whether or not you can be an elite point guard in the modern NBA, and Bledsoe excels in that area when given the opportunity.
Do not dismiss the subtle extra dribbles that Bledsoe churns in order to stretch the defense just enough so that he can rifle a LeBron-like missile over to P.J. Tucker in the corner. Point guards get themselves into trouble when they try to make that pass a half-second too early, and Bledsoe shows enough patience to allow Durant to sink in to account for the possibility of a Tyson Chandler lob and thus leave Tucker vacated.
Again: Bledsoe uses his eyes to manipulate Durant into thinking that one thing is going to happen before doing the complete opposite, disallowing his gangly arms to wreak havoc via a contest. Every dribble matters, and when executed properly, open looks will likely be the outcome.
Early offense is the best offense in the NBA, and Bledsoe should look to attack defenses more with quick pick-and-rolls because they will often times be unset and ill prepared to rotate.
Chandler doesn't really even set an actual screen here, but his presence uncorks a chain of events to spring Mirza Teletovic open at the top of the key. The instinctual left-handed pass Bledsoe makes here is impressive and on target, but Denver is completely out of position defensively thanks in large part to the quick-hitting action. Having five defenders confined to the painted area is not ideal:
The biggest knock on Bledsoe's game has always been his shot making, but he has grown in that department more than the general consensus has given him credit for. Teams tend to dive under picks against him in the halfcourt, leaving a choice to be made: Take the top of the key 3-pointer, call for a re-screen, or embark into a clogged lane. Bledsoe is becoming more lethal at making defenses pay by choosing door number one with no hesitation.
If he can continue to hit that shot with even an ounce of consistency, the Suns are going to be a terror to defend when they elect to play the spread pick-and-roll game with Bledsoe as the ball-handler, Chandler as the roll man, and three other shooters stationed around the perimeter. The Suns point guard shot 37 percent on threes last season, but he has always been more streaky than consistent, and a potency to burn defenders who dare go under a screen will unclog the lane for the rest of the Suns' athletic wings. A domino effect of sorts.
On defense, Bledsoe has always left more to be desired since he became head-honcho of the offense. It's not that he doesn't try or doesn't have the talent to be a defensive menace, I think he has just felt the need to shoulder so much of the offensive burden in the recent past that he hasn't been able to summon the energy to consistently terrorize his opposition on every possession. That being said, he averaged two steals per game last season, and has instincts that you can't really teach.
Bledsoe sniffs out this action five seconds before it happens, disregarding the threat of Austin Rivers venturing to the corner and pouncing on the pocket pass. "Floating" around on defense is a risk/reward proposition, but Bledsoe is keen about choosing his spots and recovering when needed. I am hopeful that being surrounded by more offensive talent will allow him to really reach another level defensively next season.
Entering his age-27 season, Bledsoe is primed to have the best campaign of his career if his health permits him to do so. I know that there is an urge to splurge (excuse me as I go try to copyright that phrase right this instant) on the shiny new toys in Booker and the recent draftees, but do not refrain from appreciating the all-around talent of Bledsoe while you can.
*All videos that appear in this article are snippets from the "FreeDawkins" YouTube page. You can watch Bledsoe and other player's highlights videos here.